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Monday, October 22, 2012

Ah, but it was something at least to have a choice of nightmares.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Heart of Darkness is about Marlowe's adventures in a new land and the mysteries that lie behind the shadows.  Marlowe relates the story of his trip from Britain to Africa to his fellow sailors one night at sea. He is ostensibly sent on a mission to find ivory, but he finds the "Company" to be quite disorganized, and his trip turns into a manhunt/rescue mission to find the elusive Mr. Kurtz. Mr. Kurtz worked for the Company, and was infamous both for his queerness and his ability to find enormous amounts of ivory. Marlowe takes a rickety steamboat into the heart of the jungle and narrowly escapes death (a few times) to bring Mr. Kurtz out from his hideaway. Kurtz has a mysterious power over the natives and the British seamen, and he's worshipped as a sort of idol. He is reluctantly "rescued" from his jungle hut, but he is very ill, and he dies on the steamer's return trip up the river. Marlowe feels a kinship with Kurtz, though even he doesn't entirely understand why. He protects Kurtz's things and takes them back to England. Marlowe's last act in the story is to visit Kurtz's intended, who is still in mourning for Kurtz though it's been nearly a year since his death. Marlowe gives her some of Kurtz's belongings and tells her that he loved her to the last, calling out her name in his last breath. In reality, Kurtz had whispered quietly to the darkness, "The horror! The horror!"
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I really enjoyed reading this one. At first, I thought it was a very eloquent horror story, but as my friend Laura suggested, its effect sort of grew on me. It's a short one - practically a novella - my copy is a mere 76 pages, barely enough space for a good character description for Proust ;) If you're looking for a spooky but stimulating pre-Halloween read, go grab a copy!

Some of my ponderings, in no particular order:

-So obviously I have concerns with imperialists coming to change/steal from the native lands, but I will admit that his descriptions of what it's like to come upon a land that feels as if it is entirely new are breathtaking.
--"Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings." 
We can't go back to an untouched world, but what must it be like to travel in places (few and far between though they may be now) like this that still exist? It makes me think of the Amazon, or pockets of islands with few (if any) inhabitants. There's a certain majesty to it.

--Before Marlowe undertakes his expedition to Africa, the doctor doing his physical asks matter-of-factly, "Ever any madness in your family?" The doctor points out that madness tends to follow men into and back from Africa and he likes to study it. Marlowe thinks this is an odd question at the time, but I love that when he starts to feel a little crazy, he comments to his fellow sailors to whom he's tell the story, "I felt I was becoming scientifically interesting."

--Kurtz is a fascinating character, and I loved this retrospective comment from Marlowe:
"True, he had made that last stride, he had stepped over the edge, while I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot. And perhaps in this is the whole difference; perhaps all the wisdom, and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible." --What happens when we cross this threshold? Is madness all we can expect to find?

--I'm currently taking an "Ethics in Public Policy" class, and one of my recent posts was on whether we needed to explicitly outlaw cannibalism, or whether we could assume that existing laws against harming humans/desecrating bodies would cover our bases. We talked through how differently we feel about cases like the Meiwes situation in Germany of "voluntary cannibalism" vs. a rugby team that gets trapped in the Andes mountain and are forced to eat their fallen teammates to survive. Conrad has, I think, a very perceptive take on it:
"No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is, and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze. Don't you know the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its sombre and brooding ferocity?

-I wanted to throw in a smattering of phrases about Kurtz to give you a better picture of him.
--"The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own."
--"He was an insoluble problem."
--"He came to them with thunder and lightning."
--"He hated all this and somehow he couldn't get away."
--"The wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion...it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude - and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating."

-My favorite moment in the book is when Kurtz appears on a stretcher and Marlowe first sees him:
"I saw him open his mouth wide - it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect as though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him." -I pictured Munch's The Scream.

-When Marlowe goes back to Britain, he finds the banality difficult to stomach. He watches people "dream their insignificant and silly dreams", and he "felt sure they could not possibly know the things I know". I feel this way sometimes about people who don't understand how bad some of our schools are. After spending two years at Fels and seeing how miserable a school can be, I have a hard time expressing to people who haven't been in schools that are fundamentally broken how terrible they are. Not terrible in the sense that the students are monsters or the teachers don't care, but that there can be places that are so forgotten, so thrown away, that everyone skims over them when they think about "urban schools" or "inner-city schools".  Two thousand schools produce 51% of the nation's 1 million dropouts each year. Two thousand Fels's full of children. It hurts my heart.
I also imagine that in a very different sense this is how some returned veterans feel; both a sense of relief to be back but a simmering rage at the seeming insignificance of the "problems" they find in the world to which they return. It's difficult to reconcile these emotions.

Sentences I particularly liked:
--"We looked at the venerable stream not in the vivid flush of a short day that comes and departs for ever but in the august light of abiding memories."

--"What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth?"

--"There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies." 

--"I don't like work - no man does - but I like what is in the work - the chance to find yourself. Your own reality - for yourself - not for others - what no other man can ever know."

--"The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine."

--"It made me hold my breath in expectation of hearing the wilderness burst into a prodigious peal of laughter that would shake the fixed stars in their places."

I'll end with one of my other favorite lines:
"We live in the flicker - may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling!"

Onwards to a contempo-classic (a generous use of the word classic, perhaps) and The Wormhole-Jumper's Uncle. Hrmm . . . did I get that right?

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